The city of Kanazawa is richly endowed with historic sites that hearken back to its glory days as the capital of the former Kaga Domain, one of the wealthiest fiefdoms in Edo-period Japan.
It is also richly endowed with something entirely different: rain. Lots and lots of rain.
Sitting on Japan’s western coast, the capital of Ishikawa Prefecture receives bucketloads – no, tanker-truckloads might be closer to the mark – of precipitation throughout the year, and July (when I was in the city last year) happens to be one of the wettest months on the calendar.
This didn’t do wonders for photography, especially as I’d only brought my mobile phone to document this trip, but no matter: not even a splash of rain can dampen the spirits of a chap determined to see the sights.
My first stop on that grey-skied morning was Oyama Shrine (尾山神社, Oyama-jinja).
Founded in the late 16th century and dedicated to the memory of Maeda Toshiie, the 1st Lord of Kaga Domain, the shrine was relocated to its current site – right in the heart of the city and not far from Kanazawa Castle – only in 1873. Though fairly small and not particularly old as shrines go, it boasts of a rather interesting landmark: a soaring main gate (finished in 1875) that features an odd mix of Eastern and Western architectural elements.
The rest of the shrine is worth a brief look, though there isn’t very much to keep one here for long. On this particular occasion, I spotted a large wreath that (based on a sign posted nearby) had been used the previous afternoon for the Chinowa-kuguri rite of the Nagoshi-no-ōharae, a traditional midsummer observance where people purify themselves by passing through the centre of the ring in a prescribed pattern.
Right then, off to the next stop.
A bus ride and a walk through narrow, temple-lined streets brought me to Myōryū-ji (妙立寺), in the south-western part of Kanazawa.
There isn’t all that much to see, not on the outside anyway. Myōryū-ji isn’t particularly large, or particularly old, or particularly noteworthy in terms of its architecture … and the pouring rain made it even more difficult to appreciate the compound’s relatively few external merits.
Now here’s the thing: I didn’t come here to gawk at the temple’s façade. All of the good stuff is inside, and the temple’s popular nickname hints at what visitors come here in droves to see.
That nickname happens to be Ninja Temple (忍者寺, Ninja-dera).
The truth of the matter is, the temple’s got nothing to do with ninja (none that they’d tell us about, anyway – oooh), but its unique layout and internal features do seem to warrant the appellation.
As an institution, Myōryū-ji dates from the late 16th century, but the building we see today was completed in 1643 on the orders of Maeda Toshitsune, the 3rd (or 2nd, depending on who’s counting) Lord of Kaga Domain. Although Japan was by then more or less settled into a peace that would last for centuries, distrust of the ruling shōgun amongst the nation’s feudal warlords was still deeply entrenched, not least because the Tokugawa government was known for punishing or demoting daimyō out of seemingly arbitrary reasons. To guard against a surprise incursion, Toshitsune secretly prepared a clandestine army base right in the domain’s capital, concealing the infrastructure behind the guise of temple compounds erected within sight of each other. One of those temples, Myōryū-ji, was designed to be a lookout point from which to quietly observe enemy movements – and it was also equipped with a host of very clever features intended to help the warriors stationed within to defend against attack.
Regrettably, photography is strictly forbidden inside (they’ll even make you leave your bags in a storage area before the tour starts), so I can’t show you most of those absolutely awesome tricks and traps. There’s a good overview on RocketNews24 that should help give some idea, but even that is far from comprehensive.
There are two features that I can show you, though. And that’s only because they’re visible from outside the building.
At first glance, this looks like a pretty ordinary entrance with a sliding door on top of a few steps…
…but look closely at the steps. See the white panels in between? Those are gaps in the woodwork hidden behind translucent paper. There’s a concealed room right under there (which you can see from inside on the guided tour) where guards could be posted, weapons at the ready. Once they see the shadows of enemy feet cast against the thin paper, they can quickly thrust their spears and swords through those gaps and … well, I’ll spare you the gory details.
As for the door, friendly agents who make it up the Dread Steps of Doom can slide it open to a pre-determined extent known only to the temple garrison. Once inside, they’ll be able to escape to a higher floor through a concealed passageway right next to the entrance. Enemies who aren’t aware of the proper position will likely slide the door too far, automatically engaging another door that will slide shut across the secret escape route. After coming through, even if they slide the entrance door back to its original place, the other door will have remained locked in place (looking very much like a wall panel) and they wouldn’t know where their quarry have disappeared off to.
All quite brilliant, I must say. And these two fairly simple devices pale in comparison to some of the really interesting hidden tricks of the building.
Note that visitors can only view the interior as part of mandatory guided tours, and reservations must be made in advance by telephone – no online or email applications are possible. The tours are conducted entirely in Japanese, but foreign visitors will be lent picture-books with detailed English descriptions that correspond quite closely to the live Japanese commentary; these are very good and I’d have gladly paid good money for a copy to take home (sadly they’re not for sale). In my case, I dropped by the tourist information office at Kanazawa Station at the earliest opportunity, and they were able to call the temple to book me in. If you’re interested, more details on how to secure a place are available on Myōryū-ji’s official website.
After the tour, I made my way on foot to the nearby Nishi Chaya District (にし茶屋街, Nishi-chaya-gai), one of Kanazawa’s three former Edo Period entertainment zones.
In those days, this area was lined with chaya: literally meaning “teahouse”, but actually high-end establishments (more akin to exclusive restaurants than cafés) where guests were professionally entertained by geisha. Compared with the Higashi Chaya District – which we’ll have a look at in a future post – the Nishi Chaya District is a lot more compact and perhaps not quite as photogenic. Nonetheless, in addition to the shops and other establishments along the stone-paved street, it’s got a small museum (housed in a reproduction of an Edo Period chaya) that’s worth sparing a little time for.
There was still a good deal of daylight left – if one might describe the trickle of sun that made it past the thick rain clouds daylight – and I saw plenty more in the afternoon, but we’ll save that for a future post. Just two last pictures to share: this being the rainy season, it was the time for ajisai (hydrangeas) to come out in bloom, and on my way back to the Kanazawa Station area for lunch I was treated to the sight of lovely blue and purple flowers set against leaves dyed with the rich green hues of summer.